How Parents Can Give Toys the Power to Teach

by Barbara Smith Decker

Any toy can be used to boost a child's cognitive development, says toy evaluator and tester Ellen Metrick. It's how you use it that makes the difference.

"If you just hand a toy to a child, the play only lasts for a couple of minutes," Metrick explains. "However, if a parent is excited about the toy and plays along with his or her child, the child begins to explore the toy. The parent starts the child's brain thinking and the child then begins to discover pretend play possibilities and alternative ways of playing with his or her toys."

So if any toy will do, how do we know which types of toys to select? Metrick, who's on the staff of the National Lekotek Center and a judge for the National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) program, says the first step is to observe your child and to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my child's interests? Does she like blocks or little people? Trucks or drawing?

  • What are my child's abilities? Can he pinch and grasp an object? Can he balance one thing on top of another? Can he match shapes or letters?

  • What is my child's frustration level? What is her limit? Recognizing when a child has achieved mastery (completing a five-piece puzzle, for example) helps a parent know when to introduce a more challenging option (such as a 10-piece puzzle) without causing frustration.

    Tech Toys
    As our children grow, their toy choices become increasingly influenced by their environment and culture. Because of technology, children now are aging out of traditional toys at about 7 or 8 years old, a phenomenon the toy industry refers to as "KGOY" - kids getting older younger. The prevailing thought is that, as long as electronic toys do not take the place of imagination and pretend play, they may play an important role in encouraging intellectual growth. Parents set the stage for promoting creativity by the kind of play they encourage and cultivate early on in their children's development.

How and when a toy is presented to a child further enhances the opportunity for increased learning. While parents want to give children some leeway in discovering things for themselves, children may not understand a toy at first.

"A parent has to make a toy concrete enough for the child to want to touch it and use it," Metrick says. "Show how it can be used so the child gets the idea of what to do."

And don't be afraid to be silly, she adds. "Getting on the floor and being flexible about game rules or how craft materials are put together can change the structure and avenue of play at a moment's notice. When you're open to play opportunities, you encourage your child to do the same."

Finally, Metrick says, "timing is everything. What's interesting to your child today may not be so tomorrow" - and vice versa. So, if a toy isn't well received one day, try reintroducing it a few weeks later.


  • AblePlay - The National Lekotek Center's toy-rating system and Web site provides information on toys, play ideas and tips for adapting toys to the needs of children with disabilities.

  • National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) - Annually highlights expert judges' top picks for children's toys, books, music, software and video games, DVDs and storytelling recordings.